Advent 2: "The Soul Felt Its Worth"

The Weary World Rejoices  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  27:17
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The New Revised Standard Version The Proclamation of John the Baptist

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

(Mt 3:1–12; Lk 3:1–20; Jn 1:19–28)

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’ ”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Does Any of It Matter?

We approach the texts in the season of Advent and if we’re honest with ourselves, we likely feel a bit of dissonance between their content and what we witness in the world in this season. Especially in a year like we’ve had, all the celebration and lights and merriment are all the more necessary and I’m imagining you are keenly aware of what you are able to participate in and what you are missing. This is a season of light and joy and hope and wrapping presents and singing carols and watching Hallmark movies and peering out the window in hopes of snow.
And so there is dissonance when we hear Scriptural texts that speak of the grass withering or the mountains and the hills being transformed. These are important, hopeful images, but they are also apocalyptic, cryptic at times, and speak of a disordering of the status quo. In a season when we want to find comfort by the fireplace as Bing Crosby sings, we feel discord with texts that say the whole thing is going to be changed when Messiah comes.
And so we wonder, what matters? Does any of it matter? Do the trimmings mean anything, really? Does all the hard work we’re putting in to make a “normal” Advent season and Christmas season really mean anything? If it will all be changed…what’s the point?
At the heart of this dissonance is a wondering about our own purpose and place in things. I wonder, have you pondered your purpose a bit more in this pandemic year? Have you been among the many who have attempted to simplify and focus on what the important things are? At the core of this activity is a pursuit of meaning, purpose, and worth. Does it matter? Do we matter?
I wonder about the prophet, John the Baptist, and how he grew up into the person we hear about appearing in the wilderness. I wonder what it was like for him to live all those years of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, walking in the shadow of his cousin Jesus, living in the aftermath of his father Zechariah’s profound experience with being struck silent and in response, his mother Elizabeth’s prophetic naming of her child which finally loosed her husband’s tongue. I wonder if John ever asked the question of meaning, purpose, and worth.
The kind of guy who goes out into the wilderness to find something, to live off the land, to let his mind run a bit wild — this kind of guy has to have been asking some of the harder questions about his purpose.
And so while we try our best to maintain some sense of normalcy amidst a pandemic surge in the Advent season, I believe we are also invited to ask these hard questions of ourselves: does what we do matter? Where does our purpose come from? Who will we be.

Prophetic Calling

It is in this context of questioning purpose and who we will be that we turn our attention to this second week of Advent texts.
The Gospel of Mark wastes no time in situating John the Baptist within the Old Testament’s prophetic tradition. Mark makes it plain (as Mark is so good at doing): John should be understood through the lens of the great Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. We hear the resonant words from Isaiah 40, the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Servant, the Lord, to come.
If John has questioned his purpose, if he has wondered at what he is to become, that work is over. It is clear now that he lives into the calling of a prophet, the one who will make clear what is going on and tell the truth about the world and point to the Messiah. First century hearers of this text would have certainly understood the connections to Isaiah and the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. John is here, on the scene, to tell us something. He’s here to point to what matters. In a time when we question what matters, what it’s all worth, what’s important, we find a man with a prophet’s calling, a conviction to proclaim Good News and set us on a trajectory that will lead directly to the only one who can give us purpose, who can tell us who we are, who can break through the status quo to reveal a more excellent, life-giving way.

Baptism and Purpose

You’ll probably notice that in this text, we have very few words from John. He is proclaiming his message, yes, but it seems as though he is mostly about actually “doing” his message. He’s a baptizer, a prophet leading ritual cleansings out in the wilderness. There is an earthy, bodily, base way about John. He’s hairy and probably smelly and wild. And his message is not about changing people’s intellectual minds or helping them cognitively work through all the difficulties of the age. No, his message of repentance is about getting in the water, getting wet and washed clean.
As I mentioned last week, these messages during Advent are all meandering around a theme that ties in the Christmas Carol, “O Holy Night.” Today, I want to link up John’s call to embodied, life-altering baptism to the following lyrics: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”
This whole question of what matters, what has purpose, for me, it ties into the concept of pining. I’m a bit of a ruminator. I get into my head and think think think about things. It’s great…sometimes. But it also can lead to inaction and worry. I wonder about the lyrics, “sin and error pining.” What does it mean to pine? The dictionary definition says to pine is to “suffer a mental and physical decline, especially because of a broken heart.” There is anguish in this definition and in the lyrics. The world has gotten stuck in its pining, its longing, its thinking and longing.
Contrast this navel gazing attitude with the flesh-soaked, hairy, smelly, prophetic way of John the Baptist. John has come into his calling as a prophet and is not here to mess around — the proclaims, calls for repentance, and gets people on down to the river.
All of this pushes into that dissonance we feel in this season. Is it about all the traditions, the parties, the music, the spectacle? If it is, what is that all for? Perhaps the ways we long for the season to be perfect and bright and purposeful are all examples of our misplaced pining after that which never satisfies, the hunger that is never eased. Perhaps we need someone who will jostle us out of our mind’s idealized hopes for the perfect Christmas (which we long for but we will most certainly never have), and find, instead, ourselves rooted down in to the baptism of the Holy Spirit which brings about lives that are truly changed and have found their purpose.

The Soul Felt Its Worth

I have a print hanging over my desk here at the church of a portion of Grünewald’s 16th century Isenheim Altarpiece. This masterpiece in its entirety depicts Christ on the cross, surrounded by friends and disciples and is a testament to Jesus’ ministry and impact on the world. The portion I have is simply John the Baptist, standing beside a bleeding lamb, the Lamb of God, and John is pointing directly to Jesus on the cross. His right index finger is extended and his gaze directed to Christ. The message is clear: John’s prophetic voice points to Christ.
I wonder at John’s story as I take in this painting and I begin to realize that John is living out his prophetic calling with his whole self, his whole body. The wild man has found his purpose as the one who points all our attention Christ.
Pause, for a moment. Take a breath. And then, consider this: When in your life have you had a truth to tell, a message to share, a hope to bring? Can you remember what that felt like? Hold that feeling, in your body.
One of the most exhilarating and difficult parts for me, of living into the pastoral calling, is to wrestle with this kind of a feeling in my body. Oftentimes, I feel like I’ve got something to say and it’s pent up in my body, locked and bound to my bones, but something that must be pushed out and spoken and lived. Sometimes, it’s really hard to know how to articulate it because it is something more than words can express. It’s wilder than that, the prophetic truth of the Gospel that is Good News for all people.
I wonder at wild John the Baptist and how he experienced this truth in his body. We don’t have a lot of sayings and teachings from John in the scriptures. He didn’t write a Gospel, he didn’t teach a sermon on the mount.
But what he did do is point. He used that energy in his body to point to the Christ. He used his body to baptize and bring people home to their place in God’s loving family. He used whole self to bring worth and meaning to a people desperate for hope.
This is what comes in baptism: a life (not just mind, but whole self, whole bodied life).
Put another way, we find ourselves back at the lyrics of O Holy Night. Remember, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”
The lyrics go on: “Til he appeared…and the soul felt its worth.”
I wonder if you’ll let me take a little bit of artistic license with this carol. We think it is referring to Jesus’ arrival when we hear “he appeared.” Yes, absolutely.
But also…if we lean on Mark’s Gospel, let’s also for a moment consider that it is the arrival of John the Baptist that we must attend to hear: “Til he appeared…and the soul felt its worth.” John appears in the wilderness and starts pointing to Jesus and baptizing in Christ’s name and proclaiming a whole new way of life, lived out through this ritual cleansing.
John appears and begins to show us where worth comes from. He doesn’t bring the worth, but he points to the one who brings it.
And so, I wonder, in this season, and at all times, at this question again: when did you feel purpose, when did you have that something that you had to share, that goodness you had to point to?
In our context, we use the language of calling. That’s what we’re all looking for: what’s the thing we’re called to do, be, say, embody?
So…in this season when we wonder what really matters. In this season when we feel sadness at perhaps lacking normalcy and purpose…in this time when we feel the despair of so many lives lost to COVID-19 and the fear that things may never be the same again…we find the witness of John the Baptist so hopeful. We hear the prophet’s voice as one that directs our souls to a whole new way of finding worth and meaning.
It is not in ourselves. It is not in the stuff, the trappings of the season. Our soul finds its worth in pointing to and accepting our belonging in the Savior, Christ the Lord.
Let us pray.
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